Another high-profile Next Star will return to the United States, before the end of the NBL 2019/20 season. Just like LaMelo Ball, who would not be able to play the season out and subsequently left Australia to return home, New Zealand Breakers guard, RJ Hampton is heading back to the United States to continue rehab on his injured hip and prepare for the 2020 NBA draft.
Hampton played his final game for the Breakers against the Brisbane Bullets on 12 January, and has been out for the past month. Over the season, he played 15 games and averaged 8.8 points, 3.8 rebounds and 2.4 assists.
"As our first Next Star signing, RJ brought excitement and fanfare to the club and the league," Breakers owner, Matt Walsh shared. "We wish him well in his continued recovery and preparation for the NBA draft and look forward to draft night when he will no doubt be a top pick.
"We would like to thank RJ and his family for their time here in Auckland, we are proud to have played a role in such a talented young player on his journey to the NBA."
Unlike Ball's departure, which appears to have caught some members of the Illawarra Hawks by surprise, Hampton's return to the US looks to be one that is known by the league and team well in advance, judging from the league's media release and prepared statements.
As Michael Kruger detailed in a feature last year, Hampton's presence in the NBL has the potential to not only impact his own draft stock, but also the profile of the league on the international stage.
Regardless, the reality for us – the consumers of the NBL – is that Hampton’s future will not only act as a standardised representation of the quality of his current team, but of the entire league itself. Outside of Australia, the NBL is considered “mid-tier.” This definition isn’t a slight, we simply have some ground to make up. But if the NBL is going to legitimately brand itself as both a developmental hothouse to its players, and as the second-best league to its audience, we must also consider the ripple effects of what it means to push these Next Stars into the spotlight. Is the NBL now responsible and indebted to its larger audience? Are the Breakers beholden to the league to develop Hampton more so than their other players? Are digital eyeballs worth more than team memberships?
The Consequence of Promise: Breaking down RJ Hampton, the NBL and the Next Stars program
This season has been the official debut for the Next Stars, and definitely a learning curve for all NBL teams, especially the ones involved. There will be more to unpack in terms of what the signings meant to the teams and league, in terms of roster impact, brand profile growth, as well as tangible commercial returns.
“RJ leaves the NBL as a projected top 10 pick in the NBA draft," NBL commissioner, Jeremy Loeliger said. "There is no doubt the time he has spent in a world class league in the NBL has helped prepare him for the next step in his professional career. Like all NBL Next Stars, we are proud to have played a part in his journey to the NBA and have enjoyed getting to know him and his family. We wish him every success and look forward to following his career in the years to come.”